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Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America into a One-Party State (New York: Tarcher, 2004, $11.95, viii-264 pages, ISBN 1-58542-342-4)Stefano Luconi, University of Florence


The Republican victory in the 2002 midterm elections restored a unified government under the hold of the GOP in the United States. Even in the heyday of conservatism during the Reagan years, the Republican majority failed to make significant inroads beyond the presidential level and the House of Representatives remained in Democratic hands throughout the 1980s. Since 2003, however, the GOP has controlled the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, besides being the party of the presidents who appointed seven of the nine justices sitting on the Supreme Court. The Republican dominance over U.S. politics has not been so extensive since the Great Depression. Democratic predecessors had dominated most of the Supreme Court justices during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term. Then, beginning with Eisenhower’s second term, followed by the terms of all his Republican successors until George W. Bush, Republican presidents have been faced with Democratic majorities in Congress, either in the House, or in both the House and the Senate (as was the case for Richard M. Nixon).

John Stauber, the founder and director of the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, and Sheldon Rampton, a newspaper reporter and an activist at the same organization, aim to explain how the Republican Party has managed to turn the presidency, Congress, and the judiciary into its own strongholds within the last few years. The result is less a scholarly account than an attempt at investigative journalism. The authors’ exposé of an alleged conservative conspiracy also looks like a more sophisticated version of Michael Moore’s bestsellers, rather than something in the tradition of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

Stauber and Rampton identify the reasons for the success of the Republican party at the polls, claiming that the GOP manipulated both public opinion and the electoral process. According to the authors, public opinion has been manipulated by conservative think-tanks, who have outspent progressive foundations in advocating their own political causes. The GOP has also shaped the stand of the mainstrem media by promoting the careers of right-leaning journalists, as well as creating their own conservative mouthpieces, such as the Fox News Channel and the National Review, which have worked to fuel the flames of political scandals targeting democratic politicians. Conservatives have also mastered fund-raising and have spread their ideas through direct mail, talk radio, and the Internet. They have even forced lobbying firms to hire Republicans who have financed primarily GOP legislatos, and have, thereby, deprived the Democratic Party of the corporate money that liberals need to stay competitive in the political arena.      

As for the electoral process, the Republican Party has endeavored to disenfranchise potential Democratic voters such as African Americans by means of intimidation and deception (as happened in the notorious 2000 presidential race in Florida), corruption of people who were supposed to bring out progressive voters (Republican Christine Todd Whitman’s aides allegedly bribed black ministers into keeping their African-American parishioners’ turnout low in the 1993 gubernatorial election in New Jersey), and opposition to measures that were intended to make electoral registration easier (George H. W. Bush vetoed the National Voter Registration Bill, that was later enacted under the Clinton administration in 1993. The bill made voter registration available at driver’s license bureaus and welfare agencies). The GOP has also tried to minimize the influence of minority voters by redistricting Congressional constituencies. Last, but not least, the Republican Party has seized the opportunity of the events of September 11, 2001 not only to legitimize the presidency of George W. Bush after his controversial first election, but also to criminalize dissent from the policies of the White House and to turn the 2002 mid-term races into a sort of referendum on the anti-terrorist measures of the federal government (a cartoon on the cover of the book reads: “Yessir, you’re either with the Republican Party—or you’re with the terrorists! There’s no middle ground!”).

As a result, contrary to other studies that have pointed to a bright future for the Democratic Party [John B. Judis and Ruy Texeira, The Emerging Republican Majority, (New York: Scribner, 2002)], according to Rampton and Stauber, the United states has become a one-party nation whose conservative government has identified itself with the corporate community and has weakened federal control agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to accommodate business interests.

In general, the single incidents to which the authors refer are correctly reported. Still, these events are seldom placed within a broader perspective and tend to suggest a one-sided interpretation. Of course, money alone is not enough to win elections, as billionaire H. Ross Perot’s defeat in the 1992 and 1996 presidential races indicated. Likewise, Howard Dean’s debacle in the early stages of the 2004 Democratic primaries for the White House showed that successful fund-raising and Internet campaigning do not necessarily equal political viability. Furthermore, one of the largest campaign spenders ever was not a Republican candidate, but former Goldman, Sachs & Company co-chairperson Jon S. Corzine, who spent roughly thirty-five million dollars just to secure the 2000 Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey. Similarly, while the 1993 National Voter Registration Act contributed to a growth in the number of registered voters, it failed to cause an increase in the participating electorate [Raymond E. Wolfinger and Jonathan Hoffman, “Registering and Voting with Motor Voter,” PS: Political Science and Politics 34 (2001): 85-92]. Nonetheless, the Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton, managed to win a second term in the White House even in the face of a decline in voter turnout to 48.9 percent, which was the lowest percentage since the nation elected Calvin Coolidge in 1924. After all, since the early 1960s, a steady decline in turnout has affected even such states as Minnesota and Wisconsin that established election day registration to encourage participation or have never enacted registration requirements as in the case of North Dakota [Martin P. Wattenberg, “From a Partisan to a Candidate-Centered Electorate,” The New American Political System, ed. Anthony King (Washington, DC: AEI, 1990) 154-55].

Rampton and Stauber also fail to mention that it was the conservative Nixon administration that proposed to establish the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. In addition, the corporate community does not need a unified government under the GOP to pursue its own interests and to squelch dissenting voices. For example, the opposition of the labor movement and environmental groups notwithstanding, the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement was ratified by Congress—with the blessing of the Clinton administration—in 1993, while the Democratic Party held a majority in both the House and the Senate. The latest Democratic president was also ready to turn his back on human rights activists when he repeatedly renewed China’s Most Favored Nation Status, in spite of Beijing’s violation of human rights, in order to help U.S. corporations make further inroads into the Chinese market.

Moreover, one may reasonably wonder to what extent the “war on terrorism” has really benefited the Republican Party in the long term. Although Banana Republicans came out before the 2004 elections, the authors do not perceive the mounting trend that was already turning U.S. public opinion against the Bush administration on this issue in late 2003 and became apparent when only 26 percent of the voters who thought that the intervention in Iraq was a paramount political matter cast their ballots for Bush in November [Nicole Mellow, “Voting Behavior: The 2004 Election and the Roots of Republican Success,” The Elections of 2004, ed. Michael Nelson (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2005) 78].

In any case, the authors’ arguments would have been more interesting and convincing if they had engaged the works and interpretations of the existing scholarship. For instance, there is extensive literature on institutional barriers to voting [see, e.g., Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Why People Don’t Vote (New York: Random House, 1988)] that Rampton and Stauber apparently ignore. Likewise, the thesis of the resort to scandals as means of political warfare would have profited from reference at least to a ground-breaking study in this field by Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter, the early advocates of this interpretation [Politics by Other Means: The Declining Importance of Elections in America (New York: Basic Books, 1990)]. Still, Banana Republicans relies upon a handful of scholarly volumes and largely draws on newspaper articles and websites without problematizing its sources.

Even more troubling is the authors’ neglect of the dynamics of the party system. Indeed, since the last third of the twentieth century, the decline in voter turnout has resulted not only from Republican pundits’ maneuvers, but also from the failure of Democratic candidates to mobilize liberal voters. The resounding defeats of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972 seemed to prove that radicalism did not pay at the polls. Consequently, the Democratic Party especially has retreated toward the center of the political spectrum and has made significant efforts to distance itself from its own liberal tradition [Kenneth S. Baer, Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton (Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2000)]. Since the late 1980s, in the wake of Reagan’s skills at capturing the backing of former Democratic voters, campaign strategists have usually regarded radical stands as being counterproductive in terms of gaining the support of the middle-class electorate that is allegedly key to win presidential races [Stanley B. Greenberg, Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority (New York: Times Books, 1995)]. This moderate approach, however, has helped deflate voter participation among liberal citizens, who are likely to stay at home on election day because they no longer find a Democratic candidate they can identify with. It is hardly by chance that nonvoting has usually affected those segments of the U.S. eligible electorate that are also the most economically and socially impaired groups in the country and, therefore, the most likely to benefit from a radical turning in politics. Rampton and Stauber also overlook the Republican ability to mobilize new conservative voters, in cooperation with evangelical groups, that has been manifest since the 1994 mid-term elections [Louis Bolce, Gerald De Maio, and Douglas Muzzio, “Dial-In Democracy: Talk Radio and the 1994 Election,” Political Science Quarterly 111 (1996): 457-81]. A comparison between the outcomes of the latest two presidential races may cast some light on the authors’ shortcomings. While Al Gore did carry a majority of the popular vote with a populist appeal to traditional Democratic bulwarks such as labor unions and environmentalists in 2000, the GOP managed to cash in on an increase in voter participation among evangelical conservatives resulting from Bush’s religious appeal and faith-based initiatives as opposed to John Kerry’s middle-of-the-road campaign in 2004 [Mellow 81-82].

The bestselling authors of previous political exposés, such as Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2003), Rampton and Stauber are no academicians. Their book has no scholarly intent and it shows. However, one may have expected more historical accuracy and sophistication on the part of its authors. For instance, unlike what the authors erroneously imply [9], divided government already characterized the U.S. political system in 1932, after the GOP had lost its previous majority in the House of Representatives following the 1930 midterm elections. The assumption that the United States retained unified government until 1932, despite the 1929 collapse of the financial market, may look like a venal blunder. But Rampton and Stauber also contend that Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who in 1912 (not in 1911, as the authors state) became the alleged father of redistricting (a pratice that aims to benefit either major party while handicapping the other), was a "Republican” [171]. Mistaking Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party—which later became what is now the Democratic Party—for the GOP seems instrumental in arguing for the prolonged commitment of the Republican Party to gerrymandering. Yet, readers aware that the GOP was established as late as 1854 can reasonably end up suspecting that manipulation of information and deception is not an alleged prerogative of conservatives only and that Banana Republicans, published on the eve of the 2004 race for the White House, is a thicker version of a presidential campaign pamphlet for highbrow voters.

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